Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dreams and Shadows

Rating: 3 stars
Length: On the long side of average (464 pages)
Publication: February 26, 2013 from Harper Voyager
Premise: Ewan Thatcher and Colby Stevens both found themselves in the Limestone Kingdom when they were children and became friends immediately. Their meeting should have just been an adventure, but when Ewan is in danger, Colby tries to save him and finds himself irrevocably changed. Both of them are living out half-lives as adults in Austin years later when they find themselves facing dangers that they'd thought long forgotten.
Warnings: gore, graphic suicide, emotional abuse and attempted blood sacrifice of children
Recommendation: If you're desperate for fairies in America, you might enjoy this one, but it doesn't really seem to take off until the climactic final battle. There's so much promise in the tone and setting and narrative circles, but then it just gets too choppy to maintain that flow. 

Minor spoilers for Colby in adulthood and an edge of a hint about the conclusion of the book, but nothing that isn't common in summary text or other reviews.

What gives this one a properly dreamlike feel:

Dreams and Shadows opens, fittingly enough, on a real-life fairy tale of two people falling in love and beginning to live happily ever after. The style is sweet without being overdone, and it seems like a golden idyll until things go, as they always do in older fairy tales, horribly wrong. Robert C. Cargill has clearly done his reading, and the theme of a small paradise broken resonates through the whole book in myriad ways. Harm done to one person tends to set that person on a course of revenge, even if getting that revenge causes more harm to the revenge-seeker and those he or she loves. By the time vengeance is found, it's also lost some of its meaning: sanity has eroded to a point where revenge can't be appreciated, or a mere accomplice is targeted, or revenge is taken against someone who acted out of carelessness. Even when taking revenge feels right and necessary and has the full force of narrative justice, it's still a hollow victory because disposing of old enemies creates new ones and sets off a new cycle. This story genuinely feels wrapped around itself in coils that don't let anyone escape unscathed-- it's a dark magical tragedy with just enough brightness in it for an edge of hope, and the constant cycles of death and rescue help create just the dark fairy tale tone to fit these characters best. 

The style can be dreamlike, but it's counterbalanced in the early chapters by academic-style excerpts from both simple fairy tales and dry books about how magic and dreamstuff and the creatures of the hidden world actually work. These manage to give the story a certain sense of focus and provide exposition on rules and dangers without bogging down the dialogue in stilted "well, this works in this way except in that case" pieces. While these excerpts don't quite have the annotations and footnotes to live up to the later claim that these (recently published) books are fetching a fortune at auction when there are literally thousands of self-published books about the supernatural floating around, they do flow well with the rest of the story. The smooth pacing of the story around these academic excerpts really works for conveying the mindsets of Colby, a boy who wished to see all the magic creatures in the world, and Ewan, a changeling boy who has forgotten his past before the Limestone Kingdom. The best element, however, isn't from an explanatory book but rather from a fragment associated with the Arabian Nights describing a djinn whose selfishness and later curse almost obliterated his species. The cursed djinn himself, Yashar, survived into the present day and tries to limit his damage to the world by seeking out nonthreatening targets to whom he can grant wishes.

Yashar is far and away the most compelling character in the book; he wants to do good but isn't strong enough to see it through, which makes him simultaneously sympathetic and easy to hate. Dying would rid the world of the threat he poses, but he can't bring himself to commit suicide, and his (spoiler-laden) strategy for trying to constrain himself without being forgotten and dying is ethically questionable in the extreme but also the only thing he can think of to do. Granting Colby's innocent childhood wishes is a bad and dangerous idea, but he does it and then lives with the consequences-- Colby himself is frankly not as intriguing as he could be once he's an adult, but Yashar's role is what makes it all work. Although he's something of a loose cannon, Colby still gets drunk with Yashar as they rehash why there's no way out of the problems they created years ago-- it's an echo of the more vivid and keenly sorrowful bond they had when Colby was eight. The first half of the book sets up the conflict while Colby and Ewan meet and try to understand each other's worlds, and it's genuinely charming. They're living alongside death and torture and the shadow of sacrifice, but they're innocent enough to fixate on the rules of tag or why Ewan doesn't know what video games are. Neither of them has ever had a real friend their own age before, and their instant rapport pulls the rest of the cast into a spiral around them. No matter what they do later, the underlying friendship and worry for each other shines through.

The red pen:

Although the looping framework and sense of everything being bound together makes for a great structure, the characters who inhabit that structure tend to be on the disappointing side. The worst offender here is far and away Coyote. The other denizens of the Limestone Kingdom (redcaps, nixies, kelpies, a Leanan Sidhe, etc.) are drawn from British Isles folklore with occasional Germanic bits, but Coyote is just....there. This could have been a great blending of the myths of disparate cultures bumping into each other, and lots of authors do that well, but there are literally no other spirits or beings drawn from Native American mythology even though the story takes place right next to Austin. We don't know if they died or moved on or just don't care for the Limestone Kingdom, so it's just Coyote having a voice in ruling this place in complete isolation from his origins. He mentions lost friends, but those are Mammoth, Dodo, and Saber Tooth rather than Buffalo or Crow or some animal of spiritual significance to the Native Americans from whose legends Coyote comes. I'm not a member of that group and will leave the point here, but suffice to say that having a mixture of English-style spirits plus Coyote comes off as either appropriation because Coyote is cool to the author or as just straight-up lazy, given how many trickster figures there are in English folklore. Coyote is clearly supposed to be smart and manipulative and driving most of the plot, but his motivations are too vague (even once they're revealed) to have the controlling influence that they do, and that combined with the question of what he's doing in this weird splinter kingdom at all makes him more of a distraction than an asset.

Mallaidh, on the other hand, absolutely fits in her surroundings-- she's a gorgeous young Leanan Sidhe among a people obsessed with beauty and power, and that makes her an object of desire for both Ewan and Knocks, his flawed changeling. She shows signs of being interesting at times, but her very first page of text focuses on her crush on Ewan and she doesn't ever really develop motivations beyond that. Ewan is sweet and saves her from danger at one point, so she loves him, and Knocks is bitterly jealous that his handsomer double has everything that he himself wants, including the love and attention of the girl he admires most. There's nothing inherently wrong with this as a childish or even adult motive for hatred, but it ends up reducing Mallaidh to a shell. Knocks can be flat at times, but it makes sense for him to fixate on Ewan-- growing up in the shadow of someone of whom you are the inferior reflection is the perfect way to create lifelong resentment. Mallaidh, however....she could have been a clever sidekick or a true partner in a relationship of equals, but instead she is nothing but the love interest with a pretty face. By itself it would have been almost manageable, but the central women in this story are either figures of goodness who suffer horribly, sources of evil who create suffering and death, or both. Not one of them can hold a candle to Colby's struggle to do what's right, let alone Yashar's nuanced constant realization that people have to suffer or he dies, and by the end of the book there are no interesting women left within a mile of center stage. The problem here isn't that it's sexist, but that it's bad for the story to reduce women to sources of pain for men, who carry the plot. The men act, the women react, and that makes the story too easy to predict, especially near the end-- the conclusion of the book is straight-up weaker because Mallaidh is an object of desire and not a person.

The other characters don't really shine either (Ewan in particular is a wet blanket), but the biggest problem with the rest of the book is actually the magic that Colby uses. It should be easy to explain how it works, since Colby is incapable of shutting up about it, but it's still vague: the world is full of dreamstuff that can manipulated to create all sorts of effects, from weather to the destruction of magical creatures, and there's more of it in some places than others. Colby understands how it works and can manipulate it because "it's as if we are God's waking dream, each gifted with a small piece of his consciousness; the beauty of that arrangement is that we create the dream for him." If you can grasp that and there's sufficient energy in the area, you can use it to do things-- losing focus is dangerous. The problem is that this system is neither original nor very interesting, and every attempted explanation of it veers into philosophical exposition trying much too hard to be profound. Some flashes work when they explain the world better, like that fairies are creatures of pure emotion, with half-measures and shades of grey left to the mortal world, but for the most part the magic system boils down to a simple concept with Colby constantly saying that it's almost impossible to really wrap your mind around; compared to the vivid darkness of fairy magic, Colby's comes off as washed-out and too vague to be real.

The verdict: I  wanted to like Dreams and Shadows because it starts so promisingly, but it kept presenting beautiful material in a disjointed way with exasperating characterization and never quite lived up to what it could be. The overall careless structure of fairy life is compelling and Cargill has a genuine gift for pulling love and revenge full-circle, but the characters lack power and the magic system that sustains them feels muddled. I may try whatever Cargill writes after this series; despite the good points of this book, however, I would have to be paid money to read the sequel.

Prospects: This reads like a one-shot to me, but there's a sequel called Queen of the Dark Things slated for release on February 11, 2014. It continues Colby's story six months after the end of Dreams and Shadows and features such vague plot elements as dark forces and enemies from his past.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Both American Gods and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman get at similar themes of sacrifice and and forces not-quite-grasped and ancient sorrow, and they manage to do so with a balanced cast of characters. American Gods in particular manages to blend figures of myth and folklore from myriad cultures in a way that makes sense and feels reasonably respectful to all of them.

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